Being talked about behind your back is never fun. So, why do people talk about others in their absence?
To help us understand the reason why so many people seem to partake in this impolite activity, we asked experts to share their insights.
Mark B. Borg, Jr., Ph.D.
Clinical/Community Psychologist & Psychoanalyst | Author, Don’t Be A D*ck: Change Yourself, Change Your World
The simple and straightforward answer to why people talk behind your back is insecurity and anxiety
Still, why might insecurity manifest in this particular behavior and what does it say about the person doing the talking as well as the “relationship” that this person is in with the person being talked about (say, you)?
Some believe that people say things behind your back that they don’t have the guts to say to your face or that they won’t say to you directly because they like you.
They don’t want to hurt and upset you for fear they won’t like that person anymore. Besides, even though they may be talking about things they don’t like about you, they may like you enough to put up with what they feel are minor things that they don’t like.
But usually, the kinds of talking that goes on behind someone’s back tends to be something other than loving, kind or complimentary.
Indeed, this talk—often referred to as gossip—generally has, as its mission, ensuring that the image of the one discussed is tarnished, tainted, and/or brought down to size in some significant and outstanding ways.
There are times, sure, where one is discussed because they are seen to have some kind of problem and are in need of help or some kind of intervention. But the content of this kind of discussion tends to confirm the superiority of the one (or ones) doing the talking.
So, let’s take a plunge here and think more deeply about what is going on when one talks about someone else behind their back.
For one thing, this suggests relatively close proximity. That is, the discussed person tends to be someone who is in that person’s life. This is someone whose place in one’s life, it would seem, is experienced as a provocation, perhaps a threat to one’s sense of significance, one’s comfort in her or his own skin, one’s place in their social circle, family or community.
In all these cases, the common fact is that the person being discussed seems to be perceived and experienced as a kind of threat to one’s sense of self.
What kind of person could this be? Whose existence could possibly be so threatening that we go out of our way to discuss them behaved their back? And this is a risk because we all know that to be the one who talks behind the backs of others—to obtain the reputation of gossip—is not an ideal place in any community.
Perhaps the greatest threat that anyone can pose to someone else is to be too similar.
Is it possible that the person who gets talked about is the one who, in what is often a less-than-fully-conscious way, is just too very much like the one (or ones) who are doing the talking?
In Civilization and Its Discontents, Freud discussed the innate human proclivity for aggression and the desire for distinct identity. To see other’s reflect and mirror oneself too much threatens our unique sense of self and superiority.
To alleviate this injury to one’s ego, we downplay our similarities with others and emphasizes their divergences — which can be amplified into seemingly unbridgeable rifts. Freud called this phenomenon “the narcissism of minor differences.”
So why, why do people talk behind your back? Because these rifts that feel sagely unbridgeable can calm the storms of insecurity and anxiety that rage when our unique identity and position in a family, community or society are threatened.
Speaking behind the back of someone—especially when we are discussing their inferior qualities and bad behavior—can serve as a great distancer.
If I am talking about you (out there in the world someplace, distant and surely different from me who is doing the talking), I can be all but sure, convinced at the very least, that you are not me.
Margaret J. King, Ph.D.
Cultural Analyst | Director, The Center for Cultural Studies & Analysis
People talk to each other about others constantly — but don’t do it directly to the subject, which would provoke confrontation and disrupt alliances.
We gossip because we have to feed our social database
This database is full of leading information about what others are doing, thinking, and planning to do – in the highly social world of the human primate, this is real-time guidance to help us navigate with social cognition.
If a pair is splitting up, getting together, not getting along, or moving on, this will affect how we treat them, for example. This is information derived indirectly, not directly from the sources, which makes it even more valuable intelligence.
Little of this happens in the open, it is all “backroom” exchanges.
Samantha Crowe, Ph.D., ICF-ACC
Leadership and Transformation Coach | Certified Dare to Lead™ Facilitator |
CEO and Founder, Evalia Consulting, LLC
People often will talk behind our backs when they have corrective feedback about our behaviors or relationship with them
Having a direct conversation is uncomfortable, and many of us haven’t developed the courage skills to lean into this discomfort. As a result, when we have an issue with someone, we tend to talk about them rather than to them.
On the flip side, it may be about our courage skills.
Being on the receiving end of feedback is uncomfortable and activates our threat centers. When we don’t have the skills to lean into this discomfort and disarm our brain’s alarm, we will react rather than respond.
If people try to be clear and direct with us, and we don’t listen or worse, we lash out, we will likely find ourselves the subject of conversations behind closed doors or at the water cooler.
Certified NLP Practitioner | Vitality Coach | Author, Hold That Thought
Fear of vulnerability
If something you’ve done upsets me, I can either tell you or I can hold my frustration inside.
Expressing to you my upset seems the simpler route. It’s the only way for you to know what’s wrong and how you can improve your relationship with me. It also allows us to become closer because you now understand more about my needs and preferences.
So why don’t I just open my mouth and tell you? Because what if you get defensive? What if you laugh in my face? What if I let you know what I really need and you blow me off?
The truth is that being honest requires us to be open and vulnerable. And that can feel really scary.
So it’s easier to just bottle up our frustration. Except that there’s only so long we can bottle things up, so what do most of us scardey cats do? We talk behind your back. That way we can vent without the risk of vulnerability.
The bummer is that by not being open, I miss the opportunity to build our relationship and also create more tension by adding another person into the mix.
It takes courage to stand before others and be real… Dare to be courageous.
Author, Hope(y) | Inspirational Speaker
In the corporate setting, this occurs often. There is chatter constantly about you and others. Each of us, as individuals, have to decide how we want to engage and participate in this activity. For the sake of discussion let’s separate the types of talking into two categories: work-related and personal.
From there these can be broken down into positive, negative, or defamatory. Defamatory is not only negative but it is also untrue. We will leave discriminatory discussions off the table, because this has nothing to do with the person being discussed, but is a sickness of the person doing the talking.
Work-related gossip has the power to make or break careers.
It is important to note that no matter how a person feels about how they are perceived, it cannot be ignored. The perception of each of us is our brand, and it is real, even if you do not agree with the perception of yourself. Be purposeful in who you are, want to be, and how you want to be perceived.
The best way to ensure that people are discussing you favorably behind your back is to do your core work well and on time. Treat others with respect and courtesy, and do the level best to approach people how they need to be approached.
If you deliver on your commitments and have integrity, even if you have a few detractors, your work will speak for itself. This will keep negative gossip about you at bay. However, when there are defamatory dialogs about you, there is little you can do directly.
The same as discriminatory gossip, this type of talk is not about you. It has more to do with the person’s insecurities or hang-ups. If you find yourself the topic of unending denigration approach leadership. Ask what can be done differently, how can it be handled?
Having the conversation with the person(s) who are talking about you may be warranted, and the HR team may need to be included. Many times, this is not about work at all, it is of a personal nature.
Personal gossip may have less impact on careers but can cause deeper harm emotionally.
Positive chatter aside, negative or defamatory gossip is painful. Negative talk may be passing, or isolated to a person or an event. If after a direct conversation they persist, then just leave them alone and create a boundary for yourself.
People talk behind other people’s backs for a range of reasons; to celebrate, share or be derogatory
A venting session may occur to pass some negative thoughts or interaction. These folks are looking for validation for their throughs and feelings. They are angry and they want to confirm it is normal to be upset about the event or occurrence.
If someone persists and the talk turns derogatory, it reflects more on the person doing the talking than the person of whom they are speaking.
If someone spends all of their time bad mouthing other people or a certain person, it is usually out of their own insecurity or other internal issues. This is where we get to decide how we are going to participate.
Do you want to routinely engage in these types of discussions? These people are usually angry, insecure, and always upset about something. And if they spend all of their time complaining to you about a friend, they are doing the same about you to someone else. A single, or short-lived, vent session aside, it is not healthy to focus on everything negative.
People automatically start distancing themselves from someone who is always complaining, honestly, it is exhausting. As an employee or a friend, we each decide how much we want to discuss other people, especially negatively.
At the end of the day, be yourself. Be your authentic self and embrace who you are.
Some people will like you, some people won’t, and that is okay. Find ways to be comfortable with who you are and how you interact with the world. If you find you are the subject of gossip, let it go. Most of the time it will pass and it is probably not about you anyway, it arises from something internal to the person doing the talking.
“Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so others won’t feel insecure around you.” M. Williamson.
Be amazing. Be you.
Mental Health Consultant and Relationship Expert | Founder, Enlightened Reality
So we’ve all been told that when people talk about you behind your back, it’s more about them than us
It’s a sign of their own immaturity, low self-esteem, insecurity, or jealousy.
There are even those that love to gossip to the point that it’s almost a hobby for them. When someone talks about you behind your back they’re often looking for acceptance, as an attempt to fit in.
Most people enjoy the hearing part of gossip even though they may not participate in the active speaking part. The speaker can have an audience at any given time and therefore feel validated that they can supply the demand.
When people feel that they’ve been hurt or mistreated, talking behind the perceived offender’s back is often an easy outlet for retaliation.
CEO & Founder, Teambuilding K.I.T.
As a former non-profit CEO, I’ve managed people and teams for more than 20 years. Convincing people to elevate their behavior is a never-ending challenge, and one of the most difficult aspects is eliminating the gossip behind people’s backs.
First, the leader must make it clear that such behavior is both unprofessional and toxic to the culture, then actively address those behaviors if they arise. Unfortunately, many leaders fail to do this. If that’s the case, then what?
Individuals should have a private conversation with the person they believe is talking behind their backs.
This should not be a confrontation, because there’s a possibility that the accusation is wrong. Simply say, “Jane, can you clarify something for me? I heard that you think I’m not qualified for my position. Can you help me understand why you think that?”
Then, you must listen! At no point should this deteriorate into fingerpointing or insults which can happen when tensions are high. Hear what the colleague has to say, and if you can respond calmly, do so. If not, then say, “Thank you for clarifying. Let me think about this for a bit andI’ll get back to you.”
I have found that when people are called on to explain their behavior, it gives them pause.
They’re not likely to do it again. If they do, then it’s time to go to the leader and be clear about the damage that’s being done, not just to the individual but to the team.
CEO and Founder, Better Proposals
There are multiple reasons why someone would talk behind your back. Earlier on my career, it was because I generally did things differently. I never dressed up for work, I wasn’t too formal with my approach to clients, I never had the same life goals as people around me. That’s what caused a lot of people to talk behind my back. I definitely wasn’t better than anyone else, I was just different, and that was enough.
A couple of years later down the line, I was able to succeed with my own company. I was doing fairly well and didn’t have to worry about money at all. At this point, people started talking behind my back because they were jealous or simply couldn’t understand how someone who doesn’t agree with the majority of people was able to become a success.
People talk behind your back mostly when they can’t understand something
For this reason, they come up with their own version of the truth behind your back. I used to be mad about this when I was younger, but I don’t mind it nowadays.
People will talk behind your back no matter what you do.
Relationship Expert | Celebrity Hypnotherapist |
Author, Subconscious Power: Use Your Inner Mind to Create the Life You’ve Always Wanted
Staying in the loop – we are pack driven and primally wired to stick together. Gossip is glue and while most times, gossip leans to the negative, it is nothing more than a way to stay connected to each other.
Talking behind one’s back is more about the speaker than the subject of the conversation. In this way, the speaker can appear to know more and have a tighter bond with the subject. The speaker can gain affluence by showing knowledge and information and most important can share their viewpoint.
The social rule is that if you are hearing a person talk behind someone’s back ‘to you’ they will talk behind your back ‘about you’.
While it’s an unattractive quality, it’s more a play of self-importance than malice and shouldn’t be taken too seriously.